In the 1920s the Radium Dial Company opened a factory in Illinois producing luminous paint made from radium. This paint was used to paint clock faces, safety signs, even watches for soldiers-anything that needed to glow in the dark. The primarily female workers at this factory and a similar one in New Jersey were told that the paint was harmless and were even encouraged to lick their paint brushes to sharpen them. This ingestion of the radioactive paint led to severe health problems and sometimes death of many of the workers. Five of them, known in the media as the Radium Girls, sued their former employer and won, thereby establishing several legal precedents in the U.S. regarding individual worker rights and labor safety standards.
Radium Halos is a fictional story based on these true events. Our narrator is Helen Waterman, a 65-year-old mental patient who worked at the Radium Dial factory when she was 16. She tells us her story through flashbacks, slowly revealing her past, the loved ones she’s lost, and the dangerous secrets she’s kept all these years.
While the subject matter is intense, the tone of the novel is surprisingly light. Thanks is due to Helen who adds humor through her naive and bluntly honest outlook. Her periodic flashbacks introduce the people who have moved in and out of her life in the past 50 years. Author Shelley Stout excels in making these characters feel real, never sacrificing detail in favor of stereotypes. We feel for the characters as Helen does: we are irritated with nagging niece Pearl but understand why she’s that way; we feel affection for young friend Adrienne but are anxious about some choices she’s made; we defer to big sister Violet’s decisions but secretly wonder if she’s right after all.
Ideally for me, a novel will impart new knowledge and introduce characters I can quietly observe for a few days while reading and who stay with me for many more after that. Radium Halos does both. I’ve been introduced to some important history that I knew nothing about, and I’ve met a variety of colorful and interesting characters who will no doubt stay with me for quite a while.
The following are some questions I had for Shelley Stout about the inspirations she had behind writing the book. Thanks to Shelley for sharing her answers with us.
Laura McDonald: Before reading your book, I had never heard of the Radium Dial painters. What was your inspiration for writing about this subject matter?
Shelley Stout: In the late 1980’s, I watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel called “Radium City.” This documentary told the terrifying and tragic story of the unfortunate women who went through this ordeal. The documentary also described the city of Ottawa, IL, and how radioactivity from the demolished factory remains today. The documentary had such an impact on me, I continued to think about it for nearly two decades. By 2004, I had written a few novels- mostly romantic comedy, but I felt I was ready to tackle a bigger, more important subject. I began researching the story again. There are several non-fiction books on the subject, but I was determined to bring the story to the public in the form of a novel. My research included borrowing and viewing a very grainy VHS copy of the original documentary from a library in Peru, IL. I received help along the way from experts in the field.
I also spent a day at a mental hospital, where I received a private tour and lecture from a gentleman who had actually worked there in the early 70’s.
LM: Your narrator and main character, Helen, is the highlight of the book for me. What was your inspiration behind this character?
SS: I think Helen appeals to readers because everyone can relate to being trapped in a place or a circumstance beyond their control. The character Helen evolved out of studying the true story behind the tragedy, and finding a voice that could tell the story, yet be a uniquely resilient individual who must endure tremendous hardships and adversity in her life.
LM: Because this was based on true events, did you find anything in your research, perhaps small details, that you particularly wanted to include in the book? Were there any characters or character traits that are based on details you found when researching?
SS: Some of the details that I wanted to be sure to include were the health issues: the body’s reaction to the radiation and long-term poisoning. Also, about the testing at the lab, and how the original factory was demolished.
Beth and Violet suffered from the effects as young women. Many of the women were affected within a short time. Others were not affected until they were much older. So the details of how Beth and Violet’s bodies reacted were important for me to detail for the reader.
LM: A few times while reading, I started imagining what a certain scene would look like in a movie. Did you think of the book as the basis for a movie while writing it? Who would be your ideal actress to play Helen’s character?
SS: Many other readers have also said Halos would make a great movie, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that while I was writing it. I began to think in those terms after I’d revised it several times, and started to work on the pacing. As far as an actress, I don’t have anyone in mind. Just a really good character actress, rather than someone well-known.
About the author:
Laura McDonald is a web designer by trade who enjoys long walks on the moors–er–hills of Central Texas. She publishes ebooks by the gals on Girlebooks.com, a site dedicated to making classic and contemporary works by female writers available to a large audience through the ebook medium.